14 November 2010

Toys for boys: an alternative view of the internet

It has been a while since I wrote here, but with a new son, I have been busy. However, not I have to get back to thinking about the archive, digital repositories and the "virtual" museum. In the course of getting back to thinking of this, I revisited a number of in-house publications that emerged out of a project we did back in the mid-1990s, in the callow age of the web. The Virtual Teaching Collection was a groundbreaking project that developed new many approaches to museum collections access. The fact that the project itself didn't go anywhere, is a long story, but like many origin technologies, they are more about ideas than actual apps.

Anyway, reading through some of these publications, I thought it would be a good idea to present them here for the first time on-line. They are historical works, now, and their references are interesting reading more than 12-15 years later, but they are also fascinating in how forward thinking they were. I present them here for historical interest. Here is the first one, a paper presented at the Museum Studies Department at the University of Leicester in 1995.

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Toys for boys: an alternative view of the internet

Dr. Robin Boast

Cambridge University

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Original presented to the Christmas Conference of the

Museum Studies Department, Leicester University

December, 1995

We have all heard of the Web. Many of us have actually used it — surfed it — and explored its many resources. We have already heard a great deal about the Web today, and some of you may have explored at this mornings demonstration. However, the majority of us, like almost every other person in the world, know the Web mostly through what is written about it. Our conception of the Web is molded far more by the constant bombardment of hype and ideology than any reflexive exploration of the Web itself. Even those of us who are "veteran" Webphiles find it very hard to understand the Web removed from its mythology.

But exactly what is the Web and what use is it to Museums? To answer the first question we can look to its most popular sites, including Museums, to see what it is that the "best" sites offer the average Web surfer. If we assume that the Web's strength is its ability to offer the individual choice — in its ability to construct an electronic Piagetan paradise — then by virtue of choice, these sites should best define what the Web is and what's so good about it.

In my endeavor, in writing this paper, to be as objective as possible, I did not simply wander the Web looking for those sites that seemed to have the most visitor numbers. I did, in fact, consult the professionals. Pinpoint Ltd. is an American Web company that, on the basis of several criteria, evaluate Web sites for their content, presentation and experience value. Using Pinpoint as my guide, I was able to discover what the most successful Web site in the world was. It is called Peeping Tom's Home Page.

And, no, it's not what you think. I know that everyone assumes that Porn is the most popular service available on the net, and you would not be far wrong, but Pinpoint's top ten includes not a single Porn site. Granted, this is largely because they refuse to review porn, but that's not the point. Peeping Tom's Home Page is, in fact, a series of links to live video cameras around the world. You can log in and see what it is like in Stockholm, and then revive yourself with a view of the current sunset over Maui. You can see what's happening in Manhattan at this moment, or have a look at Hollywood (it was 3:30 in the morning when I had a look). Most importantly, of course you can have a look at the famous Cambridge University coffee pot.

Peeping Tom's is what we call a links page. It is not a series of linked information, but a list of links to other places. There are also pages that are hypertext guides with a variety of linked information, usually produced by one person or institution, and served-up for you to wander around. Most of these pages also allow you to search on some criteria to get a list of information. This is true of the Movie Database, one of the top ten Web sites, where you can search for a variety of information about almost every film that has ever been made ... except for the film itself ... or any pictures of it. There are also sites that offer services, sort of a virtual mall, and just about as appealing. However, these sites are also very popular on the Web.

The problem with these popular sites, as with almost all sites on the Web, is that they are often far less about information than they are about advertising. This is not really a new phenomenon, although the Web has been rapidly commercialised over the last six months. On the Peeping Tom sites you always have to go through a page telling you all about the wonderful company or university department that is kindly, and through its technical expertise, bringing you the live image. Granted, the many on-line databases, like the Movie Database, are services provided by enthusiasts, but these too are increasingly becoming commercialised. And the digi-malls, well need I say more.

The World Wide Web is fast becoming a commercial media where goods, services, academic reputations, university admissions are marketed to the cyber public.

Of course museums are not involved in this petty form of marketing. We work to much higher ideals, we seek new and innovative media to improve access to our vast collections and expand our audiences.

A quick tour through the top 5 Museum sites defines the unusual picture:

In first place is the National Zoological Park in Washington DC. Not a page that I would particularly recommend with far too much emphasis on virtual marble, but plenty of cute and cuddlies.

Next is the Museum of American Art. This is the place to go if you are keen on cowboys and western sculpture — Wild West I mean. Again, the visitor here goes for an affinity with the content rather than due to an educational zeal.

Third is the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, a pedestrian site with good images.

Fourth is the Michael C. Carlos Museum, by far the most interesting site of the lot. This site is as close as you can get to a virtual museum with the interface completely through a gallery guide. However, the Carlos Museum gives you access not only to the galleries, but to all the Museum's various offices and officers. You can visit the Director or stop off and see who works in Security, or even visit marketing or education. This museum has a truly open door policy — well, virtually.

Finally, and the most bizarre, is the International Museum of the Horse. This is a very boring page that seems to extol the virtues of the horse in America as though this was representative of the universe. Why this page should be so popular can only be explained by the vast number of horse owners in the US.

What is most striking about these sites is the shear dominance of the American Museums. Why are these museum's Web sites so popular? The Science Museum's pages have had over 600,000 users over the last three months. Are they better presented than ours? Certainly we cannot argue that the presentation of the International Horse Museum is better than Jim Bennett's Oxford University History of Science Page. Is there something more to this that we haven't been told? You have to wait until 11th place before a non-US museum appears — in this case our own Natural History Museum.

The top 5 museum sites, and the top 20 for that matter, represent a ragtag collection of American museum Web sites. Granted, the visitor numbers for museum sites is far lower than many corporate sites, but there is really nothing to unite these sites in quality, content or experience. They are all largely dull, badly designed and offer only the most superficial information. They are, I am afraid, merely on-line prospectus for the museum. On-line adverts to tell the Web populace what a wonderful place these Museums are. But where are the vast number of Europeans? Where are those of Asian and African decent? Where is their interest expressed in these sites? If they are the most popular, why are these people visiting the National Zoological Park in Washington. or the International Museum of the Horse?

Perhaps we have been missing the point? We have been told that the Web is a place for all people. That you cannot tell the gender of a person on the Web, or their race, or their income. That there is no barrier to access. Except a small monthly charge. And the cost of a computer of course. Oh, yes, and at least a bit of computing knowledge. Oh, and then, of course, a belief in the unquestionable worth of uncontextualised and unreflexive information is quite useful as well. But everyone believes that — don't they?

If everyone does believe that, and if even the vast majority of the people of the developed world, at least, have reasonable access to computing, then we should see quite a diverse cultural and socio-economic audience on the Web. So, if that is the case, why are all these people, from diverse and varied backgrounds visiting digi-malls, or looking at a coffee pot in Cambridge, or educating themselves at the International Museum of the Horse?

There is another very useful site on the Web. It is at Georgia Tech. It is a site that, every six months or so, releases summary statistics about Web use. Most important for us is the statistics that they collect on who is using the Web. Here are some of their statistics:

The different ages of people who use the Web is quite interesting. The age of those who use the Web is both universal and fairly young.

In respect to income, please notice that in the United States there is a clear peak among the middle income groups, while here in Europe there is also a large peak in the lower income groups. This is not because our lower income groups are more Web savvy, but because in Europe our universities give all their students free Web access and students tend to be on quite low incomes.

The general level of education of Web users is quite interesting. In the United States, the level of education is quite low, while in Europe it is quite high — peaking around the Masters Degree level. This is probably due to our high student Web population. But we still don't see many at the lower end of the socio-economic scale here.

More telling are the more personal statistics. The ones that mark us more clearly than do the ambiguous and varying factors of income, age or education.

What about gender? Computers started out, and largely remain, a male preserve and the Web doesn't seem to be doing much to reverse that trend. Women buy more mobile phones than men, there is an almost 50-50 split on Fax ownership, so why are women staying off the Web in droves?

Race is another important indicator, not the least because it is so strongly linked to socio-economic trends in the West. But also because it is these people that need a greater voice, and, after all, as I stated before, you can't tell a person's colour on the Web. Or can you. Perhaps we cannot see their colour, but what is being said, what is being offered, does not seem to be of much use unless you are white.

Most telling of all is where the Web audience is located. What countries do our Web population call home. We all know that the largest Web population is in the United States, but did you know that it was this large? 85% of all Web users are American! No wonder they are all so fascinated by the American Museums, they are all Americans.

Now the Georgia Tech statistics are obviously biased towards the United States. Even though they work quite hard to get a world wide picture, there is inevitably going to be a bias towards the US. But even if we accept that these statistics are only generally correct, there is a phenomenal dominance of white, middle-class, American, males on the Web. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the primary audience of any Web site are the white, middle-class, American, males.

Why is this so? We have been told that the Internet grew out of a US military computing system that was distributed so that it could not be knocked out in the case of a nuclear war. That this computing system was increasingly used by the defense research community and then slowly appropriated by the universities. And that now this network is being distributed throughout the world as a universal communications system.

This is a lovely, evolutionary history of progress and transformation — real swords into ploughshares stuff. Though in some respects technically true, it is, substantively, incorrect. The real history of the internet, especially as we see it today, is far more interesting and far more political.

In 1991, the US Congress, backed by the then President Bush, with bipartisan support in both Houses, passed the National High-performance Computer Technology Act. This Act had a direct impact on what was to become the Internet revolution, but the most immediate effect was to boost federal support of the Internet by about £625 million per year.

Why should the US government do this, and why do it in 1991. The Cold War was beginning to wind down. The Regan years of excessive military spending were over — the US government could no longer afford such luxuries. Congress, especially the Republicans, have always been very wary of computers and computer access. Even today, among many of the Congressional big-wigs there is a Techno-fear that borders on paranoia. So why spend such a large sum on what amounted to an educational computer network.

The 1991 bill was largely the work of two Congressmen — one Democrat, the other Republican. Both are science, and science fiction, nuts, and both are self confessed 'futurists'. Both of these men embraced computers and computing as the future of telecommunications and saw the Internet as the basis of America's educational and commercial future.

It was largely, and some argue almost exclusively, through the work of these two Congressmen that the 1991 bill was passed and the Internet as we know it was born. Both are well versed in the technicalities of the Internet and computing — a knowledge that industry experts recognise as being unique on Capital Hill. And this knowledge, as well as their involvement with the developing network infrastructure of the US has certainly helped their careers, at least in part. For both have, over the past 4 years, been given quite significant promotions.

So who are these two Politicians, Capital Hill's own cyber-nerds? They are none other that Vice President Al Gore and Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.

Al Gore, as I am sure you all know, is the person who coined the phrase, "The Information Superhighway". He says that it was at a meeting with some computer heavy-weights in 1978. Many of his aides are less sure, and some attribute this evocative association to the mid 1980s.

Gore's idea, as he put it, was to create a national infrastructure that would fulfill his vision of "a little girl in Carthage, Tennessee" — Gore's childhood home — "going home after school, settling down in front of a machine not much different from today's Nintendo, and having at her fingertips all the information in the Library of Congress." (A. Gore). This was Al Gore's vision, and it quickly became America's vision, and then the worlds. The vision of a vast information network connecting all the parts of America which, supported directly by the federal government, would grease the wheels of education and commerce as the interstate highway system of the 1950s did.

This analogy, between the information superhighway and the interstates, is not fortuitous. Albert Gore Sr., the Vice President's father who was also a Senator, was one of the architects of the US interstate highway system in the 1950s. A network of motorways, supported by government, with access to all, enabling contact, movement and interaction was a powerful image for the young Al Gore Jr.

Far more important, for the Americans, was Al Gore's role in the passing of the National High-performance Computer Technology Act in 1991. He was central to its passage even though ultimately it became a Republican initiative. It certainly helped swing a large number of leading-edge constituencies in the Presidential Primaries of that year, thus catapulting Al Gore from Senatorial cyber-nerd to Vice Presidential Candidate and, ultimately, to Vice President.

Newt Gingrich has had a slightly different path into political cyberspace. As an Associate Professor of History at West Georgia College in the 1970s, he went to hear Alan Toffler, a leading American futurist, speak in Chicago. Newt was already well versed in the writings of Toffler and was already tailoring himself as what he now calls a conservative futurist. After being elected to the House in the 1980s, Gingrich met Gore and both worked together on many committees on Capital Hill during that decade to further what both saw, and still see, as the way forward for universal communications in the 21st century — the internet.

However, though Gingrich was seen as an intelligent and extremely well informed politician on internet matters, he was seen as a definite outsider. With a Democratic President in the White House and what must have seemed as a permanent Republican minority in the House, Newt Gingrich was not much of a player, except from the sidelines.

All this changed with the 1994 elections. As we all know there was a Democratic route on Capital Hill and the Republicans took both Houses. The Vice President presides over the Senate, but as of the 1994 elections, Newt Gingrich presides over the House of Representatives. Gingrich had his chance, not just politically, but also to mould the future of computer networks to his plan — to his vision.

On his first full day as Speaker of the House, with all the nation's media in attendance, the one day where he was assured of the complete dominance of the nations media, Gingrich chose to speak of practically nothing else but computers. As he spoke to the House Ways and Means Committee, the Committee that sets spending policy, the only definitive proposal that he put forward that day was a tax credit for the poorest Americans to buy a laptop. He has since retracted this proposal in that it was really a sound-bite rather than a meaningful policy, and it was pointed out that the poor don't pay taxes anyway. However, that day he also vowed to put Congress on-line.

This was no small proposal. Congress has resisted going on-line for years, and no party more than the Republicans. For a Republican Speaker to be proposing such access was nothing short of radical. But Gingrich was actually suggesting something even more radical — something far beyond what even the Democrats were suggesting — he said that the citizens should have access to everything — bills, speeches, committee reports, everything — and that access should be free. And, by-the-by, he has done.

So why should we care that the two most powerful politicians in America are cyber-keen? Isn't this a very good thing? Won't this herald in the golden electronic age that much quicker? Well, first of all, I'm yet to be convinced that an electronic golden age is approaching. Mostly, though, what worries me, and many others in the computing industry, is the battle that is developing between Gore and Gingrich on the future of American Telecommunications. As we have seen with the internet, what America does, the rest of us more or less do by default. The shear scale of the market, the shear scale of the ideology, largely determines what is available for the rest of us. As Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, has said, "On competition, access, privacy and rights, they're fighting over the future of America's communications and information infrastructure."

The battle has already started for what the information superhighways of the future will look like. At the heart of the battle is a belief, a belief that is shared completely by both Gore and Gingrich. The belief in a network that is "digital, connected, decentralised, ubiquitous: a network of networks, controlled by no one, buzzing with competition among firms of all sizes and among innovative individuals, but with plenty of room for those who want just to talk." (Wired, 1995) The battle is, rather, between two fundamentally different visions of the proper relationship between the federal government and the emerging cyber world.

Gingrich believes completely in the effectiveness and efficacy of the private sector, and holds complete contempt for Washington. A self-styled "conservative futurist", Gingrich is an American Thatcherite.

Gingrich's philosophy is summed up in a 110 page white paper which received full support of Gingrich, "The Telecom Revolution — An American Opportunity". It is a conservative policy document on the how to make his central vision for the internet work. At its heart is a doctrine of rapid, radical deregulation. Cable-rate regulations? Gone. Cross-ownership restrictions between cable and broadcasting and between broadcasting and newspapers? Gone. As Gingrich recently said, "I think it's pretty clear we're at a point where we ought to just liberate the market and let the technologies sort themselves out over the next 10 or 15 years." (Gingrich)

Al Gore takes a different tack. He does not advocate government control and supports privatisation of the internet. He believes that private enterprise should build it and pay for it. However, he also believes that such a foundational universal service requires regulation and control. Not the least to avoid large corporate interests building a monopoly and controlling the media (much as Labour has recently done with its proposed agreement with BT).

The latest round has been over the Republican bills to reform the Communications Act of 1934. An Act that both sides agree is completely inadequate to cope with even late 20th Century communications. The battle was on the usual partisan lines: Gingrich thought that the bills didn't go far enough in removing regulation and pushed for the abolishing of the Federal Communications Commission. Gore arguing that the whole package went far too far, leaving the door open for a late 1890s style Robber Baron development of the internet. In the end, the latest House Telecom Bill was the usual compromise.

This was not the main battle, though. With US annual direct and associated internet revenues of around £160 billion, this is a fight that is not going to die down soon. The battle for the internet is not a battle between the peoples of the world. It is a battle between corporate and governmental interests almost exclusively in the US. Mostly, though, it is a battle between two men. Two men who epitomise the constituency they are fighting for. White, middle-class, American and male, they epitomise the vast majority of cyber-folk and the ideology that this "revolution" is about access and free exchange of information. It is, however, ultimately, about making money and control, and whatever is the outcome of the next two to three years of legislative battles in the States, this outcome will fundamentally determine what the internet may become.

We all need to be aware of what the internet is and who it represents. Not the hype, but the reality. We also need to recognise, and effect through our works, the need to influence the development of all forms of telecommunications towards real access. As museums, we cannot do this by simply accepting the hype of the internet and offering up more of the same restrictive icons electronically. We do not need virtual museums, we need means of access and communication which speaks to new audiences and more directly to our local communities.

We may be able to effect this development, but only in a small way. We can only achieve and effect by concerning ourselves with what we produce, rather than on what we produce. The internet is not the answer, it is but a medium. The question is whether it does become a medium within which various groups and interests may find a voice, or whether it will remain, as it largely is today, a passive and restrictive toy for boys.


Better known as Black Thursday, on the 8th of February, 1996, the US Telecom Bill passed both houses of Congress and is about to become law.

07 March 2010

The book shop and the sunday drive: yet again why the UK Digital Economy Bill is wrong-headed

I have been having an email conversation with Lord Clement-Jones for the past few days (see blog 1 and blog 2) about the UK Digital Economy Bill. We have been trading complaints and counter-complaints, arguments and counter arguments, but I have had the strong feeling that we are mostly speaking past each other. Not because, as many may think, that one of us, or both of us, don't really understand the Bill. In different ways, Lord Clement-Jones and I are well versed in the implications of the bill, but the ways that we are versed seem to be based in different cultures.

I have had this problem before, that of trying to explain something that from my own experience seems so clear and familiar, but must seem totally alien to the person I am speaking to. I characterise this to my students as something like the 16th century European traveller coming home from what then were far away lands and trying to explain what they saw. Without a common language and a common experience, what is familiar and sensible to one is alien and distant, even impossible, to another. This is what I feel like when talking with well meaning people who think that the UK Digital Economy Bill is a good thing.

After exchanging arguments with Lord Clement-Jones, I felt that one of the problems is with the belief about what the web is. If I may speak for Lord Clement-Jones and the other proponents of the Bill -- an unfair position to take, I know -- I think that they all see the web as a large library or book store. The web for them is a means of disseminating published, or quasi-published, material and the ISPs (Internet Service Providers) are there to accommodate the accumulation and dissemination of this content. Therefore, from their point of view, if some 'publisher' of content, a web page owner, is accumulating or disseminating illegal content or violating someones copyright, the web library or bookstore -- the ISP -- has a duty to remove it from the shelf. More than this, like all good libraries and bookstore, they have a duty to keep a record of all they hold. Very simple, very sensible.

Unfortunately for Lord Clement Jones and the other proponents, the web isn't anything like a library or a bookshop, and ISPs certainly aren't like libraries or bookshops. Not only is publishing on the web far more complex, hybrid and multi-authored, in fact since Web 2.0 it isn't much like publishing at all in the vast majority of cases, but the services that provide for content to move around and be used on the web are nothing at all like a library of bookshop.

The confusion that the Government and the proponents of this Bill have got themselves into is that they don't realise that they are dealing with something that is much more like a distributed, grassroots transport system than an archive. The web is much more like a vast open road system, where all people can not only choose where to drive, and when, but can put up stalls more or less when and were they wish. They can stop where they want for a chat, or a bit of politicking or even to build a community. What the Bill really doesn't understand is the degree that anyone can build and extend their own road system within the existing network, and how anyone can enter the transport system from any one of dozens of points (I regularly use at least 5 ISPs and probably dozens more infrequently). Rather than being something scary and dangerous, this is what gives the great power to the Digital Economy. Shut down or disable this system, and you destroy the economy.

The problem with this legislation is that it thinks it is blocking books on shelves, when what it is really going to be doing is to close down whole streets because someone may have done something illegal on them. We would not expect the occupants of a street, nor the businesses on that street, and especially not the people who maintain the street, to be liable if someone does something illegal on their street. However, this is exactly what this Bill does for digital networks.

There remains no need for these restrictions and unjust obligations as current copyright law more than adequately protects the copyright holder. That the web needs regulation and its use requires responsibility, I fully agree, but let's create fair regulations that punish the perpetrators while ensuring the rights of law-abiding users and service providers.

06 March 2010

More of Lord Clement-Jones' arguements -- and back

Lord Clement-Jones was kind enough to reply to my criticisms directly.

As Lord Clement-Jones wrote directly to me, rather than a stock reply, I do not feel I can reproduce what he said here without his permission. However, he did make several points which I can paraphrase here.

Lord Clement-Jones misunderstood my allusion to mobile networks and phone companies thinking that I believed that the new legislation included such provisions. I did not, and I was using the example hypothetically. He went on to say that UK domestic websites fall within UK copyright law, which we knew, and that many sites already have procedures for removing infringing material -- so why do we need the legislation? Also, that most other services are more regulated than the internet and that the new provisions are "very carefully circumscribed."

Well, I naturally disagree with Lord Clement-Jones, and here is my reply:

Dear Lord Clement-Jones,

I think I did mean "extended reply", but perhaps the irony was misplaced. I did see that the amendment does not force mobile phone or landline operators to police the use of all phones, as that was my point. If there was, hypothetically, some legislation requiring them to do so, this would be seen as intolerable. However, we are expecting ISPs to police content in a way that we would not demand of any other service provider. We do demand such policing of content for broadcasters, but then that leads us to a much larger debate about the difference between broadcasting and the internet -- a debate that needs a great deal more attention before we start legislating it.

Your fourth point is apt as many other services are more regulated, but they are more regulated to ensure freedom of content, freedom of expression and to stop government policing the service without due legal process. If that was the case, then we would be far less concerned with the legislation. Your points, as put, are sensible, but the point remains that we are asking ISPs to police content of a service which is not really a broadcast service, and to do this with a liability that is ill-considered and clearly unjust. ISPs are not broadcasters and do not have an editorial role over the content their service enables, any more than the phone companies or mobile networks have editorial, or any, responsibility over what their users say. It is the lack of understanding of these key differences and key characteristics of the digital networks that has lead to this ill-suited and certainly damaging bill.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Robin Boast

05 March 2010

Lord Tim Clement-Jones replies to criticism about the Digital Economy Bill

After writing to Lord Clement-Jones asking him to reconsider his backing of the deeply damaging UK Digital Economy Bill, here is the response I got. As it is a "standard reply", I do not think I am breaking any copyright laws in reprinting it. However, I may in the future.


Dear Dr Boast

Forgive the standard reply but I have had a few emails to reply to on this subject as you can imagine. If you have further queries having read this, don't hesitate to contact me again.

Thank you very much for your email concerning an amendment passed in the House of Lords to the Digital Economy Bill on the issue of site blocking on the internet. I hope I can explain the background, why some of the concerns that have been expressed are unfounded but also the steps that are being taken to resolve any outstanding issues.

The amendment was tabled to replace Clause 17 which gave the Secretary of State excessive powers to amend copyright law at will in the future with limited scrutiny from Parliament. The Lords’ efforts ensured that Clause 17 was successfully deleted from the Bill on Wednesday 3 March.

Conscious, however, that around 35% of all online copyright infringement takes place on non peer-to-peer sites and services it was felt important to also sought to address this issue. To some extent there is existing legislation regarding site blocking; for example, numerous ticket touting websites were closed by police action in recent months. While further improvements no doubt can be made, the intention was to improve such existing legislation.

Amendment 120A enables the High Court to grant an injunction requiring Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to websites that persist in publishing a substantial amount of copyrighted material despite repeated requests to remove it.

The Liberal Democrats believe passionately in the neutrality of the web; neutrality as far as free speech is concerned and neutrality as far as independence from government is concerned. Indeed, dating back to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act the Liberal Democrats have been committed to ensuring the maximum possible freedom on the internet. That remains our position. And we are instinctively loath to give the government any increased power in this area. But we can’t be neutral about illegality. Just as we would all want to prevent shops from selling stolen or counterfeit goods, so too we should want to prevent it happening on the internet.

As it stands, the amendment ensures that an injunction would only be permissible in the following circumstances:

1. Where a site is hosting a substantial amount of copyright material
Sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Google have such an enormous volume of material it would be impossible for a “substantial proportion” of their content to infringe copyright at any one time.

2. Where the site operator has been contacted a number of times and asked to remove the copyright content but has failed to do so

Amendment 120A includes the condition that if reasonable steps have been taken to prevent access to copyright content an injunction would not be permissible. YouTube, for example, has a very good record of checking and removing content that infringes copyright.

3. Where the copyright holder has made a reasonable effort to ensure that there are legal ways of accessing the content online

The amendment is designed to encourage copyright owners to develop innovative new ways for their material to be accessed legally online, such as Spotify. The intention is to discourage legal action from being the first port of call.

4. Where human rights implications, such as the right to freedom of expression, have been taken into consideration by the Court

No injunction would be permitted unless all these conditions were met.

In other words, the amendment is designed to pick up sites that persistently host substantial amounts of copyright content despite being asked repeatedly to take the material down. The business of many of these sites is based on the publication of copyright material but, as they are not based in the UK, existing British law does not apply to them.

Some concerns which have been raised about the amendment include:

1. YouTube or Google (or similar sites) would be blocked -
This clearly couldn’t happen (see points 1 & 2 above)

2. Site operators won’t be notified of an injunction application -
An injunction is not permissible unless the site operator has already been contacted and asked to remove illegal material, and refused to do so (see point 2). So concerns that site operators would not know of the threat are unjustified.

3. Sites like blogs that host other people’s comments might publish illegal material inadvertently and therefore be targeted by ISPs -

For a website to be threatened with an injunction, the illegal content would have to form a “substantial” part of all the material on the website (see point 1) AND the site operators would need to have refused repeatedly to remove the content.

4. Cyberlocking sites which are used to publish copyright content could be blocked -
The same conditions about “substantial” amount of copyright material and repeated refusals to remove or block copyright content would apply to cyberlocking sites as to any others (see points 1 & 2 above).

Given the speed with which this amendment was drafted, it is quite possible that the wording can be improved and I would welcome any suggestions you have on this point. You can be assured that the Liberal Democrats will continue to seek to do all we can to ensure that the rights and freedoms of internet users are protected to the maximum possible extent. The DCMS team has invited some leading bloggers and the Open Rights Group as well as representatives from key members of the industry to a round table to work out how we can best make this happen.

Many thanks again for taking the time to contact me on this important issue.

Best Wishes

Tim Clement-Jones


This was my reply to Lord Clement-Jones:

Dear Lord Clement-Jones,

Thank you for the extended reply, and I do know most of these points already. The point you fail to deal with, however, is that contrary to any other service sector, this legislation places liability onto the service provider. I don't think that a piece of legislation would get very far if it included an amendment forcing mobile phone or landline operators to police the use of all phones. If someone is violating the law, copyright or not, by using a landline or mobile phone, the service provider is not liable the perpetrator is. If someone is using a leased property for illegal activity, the landlord is not liable the perpetrator is. Yet this legislation requires the ISPs to both police the service, the job of the police, and be liable for illegal activity that they are not complicit in. This is draconian by any standard and will force the internet into a downward spiral. Just at a time when this country should be investing in increased capacity and greater inclusion, this legislation will force many grassroots ISPs off-line. I ask you again to rethink you support for this legislation as a whole. We can do much better than this -- we must do much better than this.

Your sincerely,


Let us all hope that this transparent mockery of justice will fail.

28 February 2010

Whose Legacy? Whose Ownership? Problems with CC Attribution and Non-Commercial

Creative Commons interviewed Shelley Bernstein, the Brooklyn Museum’s Chief of Technology, earlier this month. In keeping with the Brooklyn Museum's innovative approach to on-line access, they are creating an API for people to access all of their digital content via the CC Attribution/Non-Commercial license. Last year, Sydney's Powerhouse Museum did something similar when it put most of its digital images up on Flickr using the CC Attribution/Non-Commercial license. Our museum (the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge) has had all of its collections on-line since 1996, and these searchable records have been accessible under the CC Attribution/Non-Commercial license since 2009.

What we see here is the slow, but increasing, willingness of museums to recognize that not only are they but stewards of the collections they hold, but also that how their collections are used, and what is said about them, is not limited to their galleries and documentation systems. More radically, at least for a few museums, is the acceptance that their digital resources, like their collections, have lives and uses beyond their walls. We are constantly being told these days, at least in Europe, that each of our objects tell a story. However, what these museums have accepted is that each of their objects, digital or not, tell many stories, for many different communities and in settings far from the museum.

A few weeks ago I posted an audacious blog where I questioned the continuing existence of closed, regimented and policed Collection Management Systems in Museums. I got some constructive feedback, and some support. However, the outrage I felt at the continued existence of these dinosaurs did not seem to be shared by many of my colleagues in museums. The point of that blog was that these CMSs are not just an afront to contemporary use, but they are antithetical to the kind of sharing we see at the Brooklyn, Powerhouse and MAA.

However, though I clearly support this program of sharing, and have done vocally for decades, I do have a few problems with sharing resources with the CC licenses. In particular, I have problems with both the terms of Attribution and Non-Commercial.

My problems are not what you might think, at least not if you assume the usual response of a museum professional. That is that they might be concerned about how to police Attribution and Non-Commercial use, or that they are not happy about allowing derivative works. In fact, I have no problems with any of this and I am more than happy to allow derivative works, as I think this is the whole point of our resources anyway. What does worry me is that there are assumptions about Attribution and Non-commercial that do not fit well with the sharing of our resources in all contexts.

Of course the good people at CC have given all this a great deal of thought and these conditions are designed to ensure the rights of the copyright holder. They are also designed to be kept as simple as possible and to allow for shared use. But what happens when the ownership of a resource, or what it refers to, is more complicated? What happens when, occasionally, there is a very good reason for commercial use, but not others? What do we do then? Now in the area I work in, archaeology collections and their use by expert communities, these situations arise almost all the time.

Let's take two simple examples.

First, I have recently been imaging a collection of artefacts from a site in New Mexico. The images are reference images of my museum and we hold the copyright. These collections also have catalogue entries that are also written by the museum and, therefore, under its copyright. However, these records and images are being shared with the Native American community whose site these objects are from. More importantly, the objects were collected at the beginning of the 20th century under conditions that would not be acceptable today. Further, these collections are from an historic site that was occupied during the Pueblo Uprising (also known as the Pueblo Revolt) of 1680 which gives these objects a very complicated, and contested, colonial heritage. So, although the museum technically "owns" the copyright of these resources, the ownership of the collections, and the histories and descriptions around them, are much more complicated. Why should these people, whose patrimony is represented, "attribute"ownership of some images and descriptions of their cultural heritage to this or that museum?

You could say, in this instance, that we could just leave Attribution off our license, but that wouldn't do either. The problem is that Attribution within derivative works for this community would not be wanted, but it would for most others. Neither we, nor the community, want other people using this information without due recognition. The community too want to protect their cultural heritage from misuse and abuse.

The second setting also involves such source communities, or those whose patrimony constitutes the resources being shared. In this case, we have a conflict with the Non-Commercial license. Let's say that some contemporary artists from the community mentioned above use some images of the collection to develop forms of jewelry, pottery or basketry that is not now made in the community. They then go on to sell these objects because that is how artists make a living. Let's take another example. Some company takes the images we are offering on-line and develops a range of jewelry or pottery, made somewhere in southeast Asia, that is marketed in Europe as "native". Now both of these instances would be contrary to the license. In fact, the second would be illegal in the United States even without the license, but not in Europe. However, clearly these two commercial uses are completely different. In the first, artists are reusing their own cultural patrimony, designs or techniques that were developed by their own forefathers, or foremothers. We wish, in fact need, to guard against the latter, but would want to enable and endorse the former.

This is my problem with the CC licenses. For most "typical" uses, they are fine, but they do not recognize the problems when ownership is distributed, in many complex ways, across multiple stakeholders. These forms of ownership and use are common to shared resources within museums, especially archaeology and anthropology museums, but all existing licenses fail to recognize these forms of ownership and use. As well as speaking with the good people at the Brooklyn Museum, I would like to ask CC to also begin talking to those of use who work with diverse and complicated patrimony. Much needs to be done here before museums, and communities, can guard their patrimony from misuse and appropriation.

09 February 2010

When insanity reigns, someone makes a packet.

I know that I haven't blogged for a while, but I have been spending all my time tweeting for the past few months. I find that tweeting allows me to say what I want, in the very short time I have, without having to compose too much. However, I have been pushed into writing by a deep sense of frustration and even anger. I have been frustrated and angered by how we have all allowed ourselves to be bamboozled by a bunch of sharks peddling out-of-date wares for astronomical prices. More than that, how these bamboozlers have almost brought the whole system to its knees.
No, I am not talking about the bankers, though I certainly could be, nor am I talking about international corporations (don't even get me started!). I am talking about a small group of specialist software companies who wrote some intractable software for museums back in the 1990s and have been fleecing the museum community ever since.
I am not going to name any names here, that would be unfair and even foolish. Nor am I going to point the finger at my friends and colleagues who have bought, and continue to pay through the nose, for these "systems" (you know who you are). However, I want to say a few things about the roughly 8 to 10 major Collection Management Systems (CMS) which have come to dominate most mid-sized to very large museums for their documentation over the past 15 or so years.
First of all, a bit of background. Since the 1960s museums, or organizations supporting museums, have been trying to write the all-singing all-dancing CMS. Different groups started at slightly different times and in different places, but you can look up the work of the Museum Documentation Association (now the Collections Trust) in the UK, CHIN in Canada, or CIDOC at ICOM internationally. However, the Museum Documentation Association and CHIN were the earliest, as I recall. After numerous local, national and international attempts, all of which failed, there was created enough of a consensus, or at least enough of a consensus that could be imposed, to build some more or less stable CMSs. With these "standards", a number of software companies build some rather clunky CMSs using out-of-date or aging database methods and interfaces and began to sell. Oh, how they sold!
You see, museums then, and to a large extent now, are not very technologically sophisticated. I know that there are a number of exceptions, but the exceptions prove the rule. Museums, like so many large public institutions (health services, governmental agencies, security services, etc.) like big, expensive and largely unworkable systems to run their organizations. Museums are no different, so they bought these CMSs like they were hot cakes. Now, everywhere you go, at least practically every museum you go to, has one of these absurdly complex, expensive and clunky systems "managing" their data. The problem is that these systems manage very little. In fact, they provide very little service at all, often for thousands of dollars every year.

Here are a few deficiencies that I have found with these products.
1) When you buy one of these systems, you buy the structure of the data, "as is." This is regardless of the kind of museum you are, the size, the mandate, the audience and the collections. Of course these companies provide you with a service where you can customize your structure, to a degree, but only if you are willing, and able, to spend a vast amount of money. How much money? Often tens of thousands of dollars just to get a few fields to be added or changed.
2) The whole point of a CMS is to help the institution organize its information. That means that you will need not only some sophisticated means finding and organizing the vast records that these systems create, but also reporting the results in an impressive array of reports. Most of these systems, however, provide you with anywhere from two to a dozen fixed reports, mostly just lists, that you can't change either. Again, if you need another one, you pay, and you pay a lot.
3) We live in an age of the Web and sharing of our information. We all use, daily, systems that help us organize and share our information on-line with a whole host of different communities. One would think that our CMSs should do the same, but no. These leading CMSs provide only the most basic web modules and output systems. None can effectively link to on-line services, few have APIs and all cost thousands of dollars to add.
4) Finally, though I could go on and on, is the user interface. We have had over 40 years of HCI expertise built up in the software industry. We are all use to using quite sophisticated user interfaces on line and in our applications. So why are we, as museums, asked to pay tens of thousands of dollars, or its currency equivalents, and almost that much again each year, for a user interface that, frankly, I could have pulled out of my arm-pit in the 1980s?
Tens of thousands of dollars for what? An embarrassing user interface to an out-of-date application that hasn't even realized that the rest of the world is well into Web 2.0 and moving towards the Cloud? No thank you. I have been building CMSs for small to medium museums for over 30 years. They are easy, they are simple, and they can do a huge amount more than you imagined. More than that, they are very cheap and easy to implement and manage. You can go out tomorrow, buy yourself a copy of FileMaker Pro 10 Advanced, give it to your 11 year old son or daughter and let them build you a powerful, sophisticated, user friendly and web-savey CMS over the weekend. If that is too easy for you, join one of the two open-source CMS projects that are now approaching completion (CollectionSpace or CollectiveAccess).
I am calling on the museum workers of the world, "Cast off the shackles of exploitation." "Unite around the simple, the usable, the effective, and the cost-effective." "Free our documentation so that it can serve our audiences." It is not a dream, it can be done.